Door-to-door subscription scams: the dark side of The New York Times

An article appeared on the front page of the Sunday New York Times purporting to expose a “parallel world of pseudo-academia, complete with prestigiously titled conferences and journals that sponsor them”.

The story describes the experience of some unnamed scientists who accepted an email invitation to a conference, which then charged them for participating, and of some other scientists who submitted papers to a journal they had never heard based on an email solicitation and were later charged hefty fees for doing so.

Somehow, in the mind of author Gina Kolata, this is all PLoS’s fault, quoting someone who calls this phenomenon the “dark side of open access”.

Here is her logic:

The number of these journals and conferences has exploded in recent years as scientific publishing has shifted from a traditional business model for professional societies and organizations built almost entirely on subscription revenues to open access, which relies on authors or their backers to pay for the publication of papers online, where anyone can read them.

Open access got its start about a decade ago and quickly won widespread acclaim with the advent of well-regarded, peer-reviewed journals like those published by the Public Library of Science, known as PLoS. Such articles were listed in databases like PubMed, which is maintained by the National Library of Medicine, and selected for their quality.

But some researchers are now raising the alarm about what they see as the proliferation of online journals that will print seemingly anything for a fee. They warn that nonexperts doing online research will have trouble distinguishing credible research from junk. “Most people don’t know the journal universe,” Dr. Goodman said. “They will not know from a journal’s title if it is for real or not.”

There’s so much that is wrong with this I don’t know where to start.

First, this IS a real phenomenon. I get several emails every day from some dubious conference inviting me to speak or some sketchy journal asking me to be on their editorial board or to submit an article. However these solicitations are so obviously not legit, I can’t believe anyone falls for them. To suggest this is some kind of dangerous trend based on a few anecdotes is ridiculous.

And yes, a lot of these suspect journals charge authors for publishing their works, just like open access journals like PLoS do. But suggesting, as the article does, that scam conferences/journals exist because of the rise of open access publishing is ridiculous. It’s the logical equivalent of blaming newspapers like the NYT for people who go door-to-door selling fake magazine subscriptions.

Long before the Internet, publishers discovered that launching new journals was like printing money – something Elsevier specialized in for decades, launching hundreds of new journals with hastily assembled editorial boards and then turning around and demanding that libraries subscribe to these journals as part of their “Big Deal” bundles of journals. These journals succeeded because there are always researchers looking for a place to put their papers, and many of these new journals greased the wheels by having fairly lax standards for publication.

The same is true for conferences. For as long as I can remember I’ve been receiving solicitations to attend and/or speak at conferences organized by for-profit firms like Cambridge Health Tech that seem to cobble together sets of speakers from whomever they could get to accept – taking advantage of scientists’ desire to put “invited speaker” on their CVs – and then charging scientists, often from industry where travel budgets are bigger, to attend. I am sure some of these meetings are useful to some people (I’ve never been to meetings like this, some people tell me they’re basically junkets with little scientific merit, others say they are very useful) – but the idea that profiteering on people’s desire for prestige in science is something that came onto the scene with open access publishing is patently absurd.

The real explanation for the things described in the article is that it’s insanely easy to create conferences and journals and to send out blasts of emails to thousands of scientists hoping a few will take the bait. It’s science’s version of the Nigerian banking scams – something far more deserving of laughter than hand-wringing on the front page of the NYT.

But if Gina Kolata and the NYT are really concerned about scams in science publishing, they should look into the $10 BILLION DOLLARS of largely public money that subscription publishers take in every year in return for giving the scientific community access to the 90% of papers that are not published in open access journals – papers that scientists gave to the journals for free!  This ongoing insanity not only fleeces huge piles of cash from government and university coffers, it denies the vast majority of the planet’s population access to the latest discoveries of our scientists. And if the price we pay for ending this insanity is a few gullible scientists falling for open access spam, it’s worth it a million times over.

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  1. Posted April 10, 2013 at 2:02 am | Permalink

    100% agreement. It’s hard to have too much sympathy with scientists dumb enough to fall for such scams. As it happens I wrote a short guide to avoiding scam journals just yesterday — I hope readers will find it helpful.

  2. Foster Boondoggle
    Posted April 10, 2013 at 6:42 am | Permalink

    Just a comment on how you read Kolata… When I read the article yesterday morning I didn’t pick up any whiff of suggesting causation between the rise of PLoS and the scammers. There was no after-therefore-because-of hinted at. She’s just saying that the legit journals started, and then the scammers saw an opportunity and ran with it. I think you’re being oversensitive…

    • Posted April 10, 2013 at 6:57 am | Permalink

      Well, I’m not the only one who read it that way – there has been a lot of traffic on Facebook and Twitter from people saying basically “see, this is why open access is bad”.

      • Erik Vance
        Posted April 10, 2013 at 3:09 pm | Permalink

        I’m with Foster, here. What I got was “PLoS opened a legitimate journal and lots of illegitimate folks got a clever idea.” That’s not blaming PLoS, it’s just a sequence of events. Relax, I don’t think anyone without a prior agenda would read that story the way your Twitter folks did.

  3. Gregory Weiss
    Posted April 10, 2013 at 6:47 am | Permalink

    I strongly disagree with your characterization of Cambridge Healthtech Institute conferences. Their annual conference in my field (Protein Engineering Summit, PEGS) is probably the best in the field, and attracts prominent scientists as speakers and attendees. I have helped organize the phage display-focused aspects of this conference for many years; the other members of the SAB are also well-intentioned and non-compensated. We do not “cobble together” lists of random speakers, but rather discuss who has done the most significant science in the last year before inviting them. Note too that they reimburse travel expenses for speakers and section chairs. In summary, CHI conferences I’ve been associated with have been really good and helpful to the field.

    • Posted April 10, 2013 at 6:59 am | Permalink

      I know they reimburse travel expenses for speakers. They have a different business model in which they profit off of attendees.

      I’m glad they’re useful. I was invited several times to speak at their genomics/microarray conferences and spoke to people who had attended them who said they were completely useless, with little or no coherence to the sessions and speakers who just showed up, gave a talk, and split (not that this doesn’t happen at other meetings).

      • Gregory Weiss
        Posted April 10, 2013 at 7:57 pm | Permalink

        Ok. Well, I guess we can agree about the fallacy of painting with a broad brush — including both open access publishing or for-profit conferences.

  4. Posted April 10, 2013 at 12:18 pm | Permalink

    Mike, We commented on the same NY Times article yesterday.

    NY Times article appears like a hit-piece on open access. Strangely, open-access should help ameliorate the problems mentioned there. If a scientist lists 10 fake articles in his resume, it will be easier to check whether the publications are any good with open-access than having them locked up.

  5. Posted April 10, 2013 at 12:48 pm | Permalink

    I have no sympathy for researchers who fall for these scams.

    As for Gina Kolata, she has had her share of scientific hyperboles and logical fallacies to warrant overreaction on this article. You’re being a tad judgmental. She is in no way implying that open access is bad. The fact that these are indeed scams makes it a compelling (and frankly entertaining) article. No educated reader would surmise from it that Open Access is bad. Attacking Kolata for this is akin to attacking journalists who write about identity theft and software piracy for implying that the Internet is bad.

    • Posted April 10, 2013 at 12:50 pm | Permalink

      I didn’t say she was implying open access is bad, rather that she suggested that these scams are a consequence of the rise of open access. This is not the same thing.

      • Posted April 10, 2013 at 1:07 pm | Permalink

        Fine. But what’s wrong with that implication? You’ll always have a cross-section of society trying to abuse a public good; look at email spam, computer viruses, homeopathy, patent trolls, and — now — scam publishers.

        • Posted April 10, 2013 at 1:13 pm | Permalink

          Calling this the dark side of open access means suggests – and is being read by many as meaning – that we shouldn’t pursue open access because of this.

          • Posted April 10, 2013 at 5:24 pm | Permalink

            Nature published the article “Investigating journals: The dark side of publishing” with the tag line “The explosion in open-access publishing has fuelled [sic] the rise of questionable operators.”

            Gina Kolata was just referencing Nature.

            I also read no negative connotations into her PLoS reference.

        • Posted April 10, 2013 at 2:11 pm | Permalink

          The scams listed in New York Times paper were consequence of internet, not open access, as I pointed out in my article -( My Bank of America is not open-access, but I still get plenty of phishing emails, and I know others, who fell for those and gave away their login/password. That is not too different from the fake conference scam listed in NY Times article.

        • steve
          Posted June 13, 2013 at 11:44 pm | Permalink

          To complete Shiran’s list

          …and BigPharma

  6. Jim Woodgett
    Posted April 10, 2013 at 1:08 pm | Permalink

    Important to distance open access from the sham/scam journals and meetings. The association is entirely inappropriate and opportunistic, just like the fake science conduits.

    I was also wondering about who actually bites on these conferences and journals but there must be enough to make it worthwhile. Postdocs might use such invitations to gamble their travel budget (it’s something to add to their CV). Like the Nigerian back account, it probably doesn’t take too many bites to break even. Moreover some legitimate conferences are slow to let attendees know of speaker drop-outs and put way too much emphasis on providing free time for skiing/sightseeing. Meetings should gruelling, exhausting and enlightening, not pseudo-vacations. Speakers should also be invested by attending as long as they can and not parachuting in and out for their talk.

    Like spam, these scams won’t go away and will constantly mutate and become more sophisticated. There is a need to educate trainees and to “discount” these superficial contributions. If people realise they bring no value and are easily outed, they’ll be less prevalent. There needs to be better awareness and at least that’s one good thing that came from the NYT article (but doesn’t condone collateral damage).

    P.S. try as I might, I cannot get rid of the BIT conference people invites (all dispatched apparently by young, single women). How can you unsubscribe if you never subscribed?

    • Arash Komeili
      Posted April 10, 2013 at 2:19 pm | Permalink

      We just moved to a gmail-based email system in my dept at Berkeley. Interestingly, all BIT conference mailings as well as most of the fake journal emails get sent directly to the spam folder.

  7. Posted April 10, 2013 at 3:19 pm | Permalink

    PLoS is well known for its high quality journals. Many of the PLoS journals compete, successfully, with the highest quality scholarly publications – Nature and Science. PLoS ONE deliberately aims to be normal science and is an innovator in this field that Nature and other publishers are now emulating.

    In other words, this goes beyond a bad analogy and makes me wonder if someone deliberately provided NYT with misleading information to make PLoS look bad? Open access policy discussion is underway in the US and the UK, and in the past these policy discussions have tended to bring out misleading information like this.

    Full disclosure: I am an open access activist but not at all affiliated with PLoS due to differences in perspective on licensing.

  8. Posted April 10, 2013 at 3:32 pm | Permalink

    My comment to a related listserv discussion:

    I am wondering whether there is more to this than meets the eye at first. Why single out PLoS as an example? If anything, PLoS was an early leader in competing with the high-end journals like Nature and Science – and now it is the top publishers like Nature that are emulating PLoS ONE.

    One possibility is that open access discussions are underway in the UK and the US. In the past, whenever such discussions have taken place it has not been unusual to see highly misleading information appear.

    In 2006, representatives from Elsevier, Wiley, and the American Chemical Society met with “the pit bull of public relations”, Eric Dezenhall. The NYT article seems to reflect the kind of strategy employed by Dezenhall.

    As reported by Jim Giles in Nature:

    Some of Dezenhall’s advice:
    “The consultant advised them to focus on simple messages, such as “Public access equals government censorship”. He hinted that the publishers should attempt to equate traditional publishing models with peer review, and “paint a picture of what the world would look like without peer-reviewed articles”.

    The latter suggests the kind of strategy behind the NYT article – paint the open access world as equated with low quality. I wonder if anyone at the NYT would be interested in doing some digging to find out where the ideas for this article came from? This might make for an interesting investigation!

  9. Margaret
    Posted April 11, 2013 at 12:32 pm | Permalink

    Then there is the statement in the article, “Researchers also say that universities are facing new challenges in assessing the résumés of academics. Are the publications they list in highly competitive journals or ones masquerading as such?” Does it not occur to them to actually READ the articles and judge for themselves?!

  10. Posted April 23, 2013 at 6:18 am | Permalink

    Dear Michael,

    As you have, by your own admission, never attended a CHI (Cambridge Healthtech Institute) conference, I was taken aback to read your condemnation of CHI meetings as “profiteering on people’s desire for prestige in science.” That would be like me rubbishing every paper in PLoS ONE even though I haven’t read one from start to finish.

    My publication, Bio-IT World, was acquired by CHI in 2006. Our annual conference is now produced by the CHI’s professional staff, along with scores of other events throughout the year. Ironically, we’ve gladly showcased many of the causes you champion so strongly. At the 2013 Bio-IT World Conference, held recently in Boston, Stanford’s Atul Butte delivered a keynote address on ‘open science.’ This was followed by the presentation of the Benjamin Franklin Award for bioinformatics to Steven Salzberg – the same award that you won 11 years ago — who delivered a spirited plea on behalf of open data and open access. Indeed, we hosted your brother Jonathan the year before as he gave his Franklin award speech in his Red Sox jersey:

    Yes, CHI is a for-profit organization; yes, industry participation in its conferences is high; and yes, some podium speakers are selected by staff following a “call for proposals.” But each CHI conference is produced by an experienced scientific producer, typically a PhD with similar credentials to a PLoS journal editor. There is never a question that speakers are merely padding their resume.

    If you have a knee-jerk reaction to such a CHI conference format, that’s fine – no-one is trying to emulate Biology of Genomes or AGBT. And if you’re tired of the stream of promotional emails you receive, by all means unsubscribe. But conferences such as Molecular Medicine Tri-Con, PEGS, and the Bio-IT World Conference & Expo serve a really valuable purpose in presenting cutting-edge science and technological innovation to a broad constituency of academics and biopharma scientists. Earlier this month we had some 150 high-tech vendors exhibiting at the Bio-IT World Conference, none of whom would be there if there wasn’t huge interest in the biomedicine community in kicking the tires of new informatics and IT solutions.

    We are acutely aware of the flood of unsolicited emails from conference producers in China and elsewhere inviting random recipients to pay their way and give a talk on their work – we’re tired of getting them too. To tar CHI with the same brush is unwarranted and detracts from the many valid points in your commentary.

    Best wishes,

    Kevin Davies PhD (Editor, Bio-IT World)

    • Posted April 23, 2013 at 6:35 am | Permalink

      I admit that I have a narrow view of CHI conferences, but back when I started my own lab I got asked to speak at several of them – most only tangentially related to what I actually worked on – with lists of “invited” speakers that seemed to be random lists of people cobbled together from internet searches. When I looked at who actually spoke at these meetings, they were a bunch of limelight-seeking poseurs. And people I know who went to these meetings said they were useless. I’ve now heard from people who say the opposite, and I’m not going to contest it.

      My point, in any case, was that, in contrast to what the NYT was saying, there’s nothing new about for-profit conference organizers trying to draw people in to meetings with no history and somewhat nebulous organizing principles in an effort to make money.

  11. James Donnaught
    Posted May 3, 2013 at 5:05 pm | Permalink

    Sketchy conferences and sketchy journals don’t rely so much on scientists “falling for” their pitch, as they rely on sketchy scientists happy to buy in. Can’t do good work, can’t get published in Nature, don’t get invited to the big meetings? No problem . . . for a price, you can still get presentations and publications to list on your resume. It won’t get you onto the M.I.T. faculty, but evidently it’s enough of an ego massage to be worth the price — plus you get to travel someplace, probably nicer than where you are!

  12. Sarah
    Posted June 12, 2013 at 8:00 pm | Permalink

    CHI is a well known joke. Big deal–they might, may, perhaps cover your economy class travel expense–what a joke. let’s see…time away from work, away from family, development time, presentation times, for….FREE?
    That’s your value? No value. Is the CHI planner getting paid, is their boss collecting a paycheck….or are they unpaid volunteers with complimentary registration–yes?

    They certainly have dinero for the venue, food, bev, A/V, PR glossies, web, etc…why not speakers??? you want professionals or amateurs?

    perhaps, they should watch Harlan Ellison’s you tube video on pay the writer. Quite interesting.

    That’s the major problem with some of these CONferences esp CHI (well known for their tactics and spamming/junk mails) and other for profits that try to mooch and seek freebies–imbeciles willing to give free talks, free presentations at an event that IS charging thousands per registrant. Those that apparently do not value their time, expertise, or experience. Perhaps, those that speak are trust funders, or wealthy hobbyists?

    They charge massive amounts for registration (1200-1800$) and then do not pay their speakers–you get whatcha pay for. youngin, “exposure” seekers, those seeking to pad their CV with invited speaker nonsense.

    Curious, does CHI get paid, do you go to petrol station and get free fuel? are those mortgages free, dinner out is that free? how about electricity is that free?

    how about education to get that degree to speak–is that free too? Get a plumber tell him that you’ll cover up to 500$ in supplies, and labour is free, and they can have 10 people watch them plumb and that will be oh so great exposure.

    When you pick my brain, you pick my pockets. Pay me.

  13. Sarah
    Posted June 26, 2013 at 6:29 am | Permalink

    as a follow-up the CHI magazine editor (who responded above) has a well known speaker agency representing him (paid speaker, for money, most likely not free) for conferences, speeches, etc…curious, does he do this for gratis?

    Appears to be a gross double standard. If he collects a paycheck, honorarium for speaking–why NOT his CHI speakers? Res ipsa loquitor.

    CHI does not pay their speakers, yet collects thousands per registrant in fees. Yet, he is represented by a professional speakers bureau/agency. Cold sandwiches, bag of chips, and for breakfast coffee and granola bars for thousands for 1 1/2 day conference, and sales pitches, poor presentations, and junior level folks trying to get a little air time/ego /back schlapping.

    Maybe he can develop, design, and present a talk for free akin to CHI with their travel refund nonsense.

  14. John
    Posted September 8, 2013 at 3:48 pm | Permalink

    Where to begin. The aforementioned for profit meeting/conference planners are imbeciles. They charge massive/exorbitant rates to attend >2K at times for relatively low level amateurs to give a canned talk. The food is crap, the venues are decent, and the smiles/happy talk abound as they charge up a storm for attendees with weak , redundant content and unpaid/free speakers–yes, you DO get what you pay for.

    Colleauges may get their travel reimbursed, however, the amounts are very limited, and low for the cities –one is not in Alabama or Idaho. Yet, the cost for regi fees are very high. So…someone is certainly making money with these for profit conferences in which they send out blast emails to the naive and/or stupid in hoping they may get a bite.

    Also, YES, they will sign your email up for endless spam junk american email nonsense. They also must be profiteering off of that too.

    Stay away. You’ve been warned, do not be duped.

  15. Sarah
    Posted October 20, 2013 at 7:41 am | Permalink

    Signature series–they are continuing with their endless spam with unsoliticited BS events to further their need for relevance and creating/defining needs-sales.

    For “only” a 2500-7500$ fee to CHI/CHA, contestants can vy for the “signature” award–wow. wee. They state you get feedback on your innovation and there are different categories so you can increase your changes of being the feather in cap “innovator!”

    Are the judges/evaluators-free? probably, given the lack of ethics and professionalism in the endless pursuit of trying hook the guillable into these sales tactics/pitches under the guise of seemingly impressive/exceptional titles, and get warm bodies for that incredible “signature” award!!

4 Trackbacks

  • […] Michael Eisen, a UC Berkeley biologist and a cofounder of the Public Library of Science suggests in a recent blog post, “suggesting, as the article does, that scam conferences/journals exist because of the rise of […]

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  • By ATG Hot Topics of the Week | on April 16, 2013 at 10:03 am

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